This has been quite a year for Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor and Park came out earlier in the year, to much acclaim, including 5 starred reviews. Fangirl came out a few months later, and now it has 4 starred reviews. As you know, I had some ambivalence about Eleanor and Park, although I do plan to re-read it, based on your much more positive take.
But Fangirl. Although I have one or two small quibbles (more on those later), I think Fangirl is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Now, I have to admit from the start that I am probably the ideal reader for Fangirl. I particularly like contemporary, realistic fiction (as I noted a few weeks ago), I have a soft spot for books that focus on that difficult first year of college, and, like Rowell’s main character, Cath, I went to an agricultural college in a farm state, even though, like Cath, I grew up in my state’s “big city” (in my case, though, it was the suburbs).
So since I’ve brought that up, let me talk about that first. Cath is from Omaha–and I loved the fact that she lives in the “least-white neighborhood in Nebraska,” a Mexican neighborhood in South Omaha, where she grew up with taco trucks and tres leches cake. She is in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which has the Ag School. As her (eventual) boyfriend Levi says, it also has a tractor museum, a quilt education center, and a dairy. The dairy comes up a couple of times, which made me smile, because I went to Kansas State, which also had the state’s Ag School, and which also had a dairy, where you could get the best ice cream ever–and it was really cheap.
Cath is a great character, smart and funny, and, while independent and self-reliant in many ways, also uncertain and needy in others. So, while she–along with her twin sister–has been looking out for her father ever since their mother left (the father has some unspecified mental illness), she spends the first month of school subsisting on protein bars and peanut butter because she doesn’t want to face finding out about the dining hall on her own. That, actually, is one of my quibbles with the book. I liked it, and it said a lot about Cath–she prepared by bringing the protein bars and the peanut butter–but it also struck me as completely unrealistic. I think dorms do a pretty good job of orientation for new students, and while Cath could have missed that, it seems unlikely that no RA or anyone ever checked in with her or gave her basic information about meals.
There are several things going on in the story, and in general, they all fit together well. First, we have Cath’s adjustment to college life, and to being apart both from her father and her twin sister. Her sister, Wren, lives on the same campus, but in another dorm, and is determined to live the full college social experience, which includes–surprise, surprise–getting drunk and getting into various situations as a result. So that’s another story line–Cath and Wren’s relationship. They have been exceptionally close, and their separation is difficult for Cath, and, as it turns out, even for Wren, who is the more outgoing of the two. Another story line is Cath’s relationship with her father, who isn’t doing all that well on his own, and with her mother, who has suddenly popped back up into their lives. If you read the book, you’ll have to tell me what you think of the depiction of Cath’s dad’s mental illness. Then, there’s Cath’s growing friendship with Levi, who she at first thinks is her roommate’s boyfriend. And finally, tying everything together, is Cath’s writing.
The writing has several layers. The topmost layer is that Cath is heavily involved in fanfiction. She and Wren grew up with the “Simon Snow” (read “Harry Potter”) series, of which the eighth and final book is due to be published in May of their freshman year of college. Cath has been writing her own version of the final book, and wants to finish it before the actual book comes out. She is very popular on the fanfiction site, getting something like 35,000 hits on her updates and chapters. Excerpts from the “real” books and the fanfiction books are interspersed throughout the book, and contrary to my expectation, they were delightful. So much so, in fact, that I found myself noodling around on the internet looking at various Harry Potter fanfiction sites, to see if there were any good stories.
Just a side note here: based on that extremely limited experience of fanfiction, I can see why Cath’s stories got a lot of hits–she’s a way better writer than anyone I read. I’m perfectly willing to believe that there are excellent writers out there writing fanfiction, but even when I looked at titles with the most hits, and titles with “awards,” I didn’t read anything that wasn’t fairly painful to read, stylistically.
Unsurprisingly, that sense played into the story. When Cath takes a fiction writing class, and submits a story based on the Simon Snow characters, her teacher gives her an “F,” calling it plagiarism. I think that’s a bit harsh (and obviously, so does Cath), since, as we have frequently discussed, there is a long history in literature of writers using characters, settings, and even plots from other writers to create their own unique piece of literature. But it was an interesting way for Rowell to let Cath explore the question of who she is as a writer, and what her particular strengths are.
Another piece of that exploration takes place when Cath works with another student in her class to co-write a story. Cath feels that it is his story, although she is well aware of how much her own contributions improve the story–again, she is learning what her own strengths are as a writer.
So, obviously, there is a lot going on in this book. For me, that made it a rich and compelling read. However, having all those storylines going on made the ending feel very rushed. For almost four hundred pages, all these balls were in the air, creating a complex and fascinating coming-of-age story, and then all of a sudden, in the last thirty pages, we were done. The school year was over, Cath’s fanfiction novel was finsihed, her relationships were all resolved, the new Simon Snow novel was out, and Cath got an award for the short story she’d been putting off writing all year. Seriously. It was really somewhat jarring.
Whether the Printz committee is similarly jarred . . . well, I guess we’ll never know that! But I think it would keep it off the table for me, much as I loved it.